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In 1916 the Biograph film company signed black comedian Bert Williams to write, produce, direct and star in two comedies. Williams created "A Natural Born Gambler" and "Fish." While hardly a breakthrough in shattering racial stereotypes (Williams was required by the studio to wear "darkie" makeup), a black production with a black cast was unprecedented. The response was tepid and Williams did not appear in any movies after Fish.
Gambler borrows from Williams' Vaudeville skits. It makes heavy use of stereotypes, e.g., stealing, cheating, minstrel speak, mainly for the amusement of white audiences of the time. But Williams portrays a leadership role throughout, something unseen in black performances of that period.
Williams' character, "Bert", is unprincipled, but likable nonetheless. The delegate of his social club has a very distinguished role worth noting. When a well-dressed man from out of town visits Bert's watering hole with a wad of cash, Bert sees an opportunity and calls for a poker game.
The closing sequence, probably the most entertaining, is straight from Williams' stage act. Bert plays an imaginary card game in a skit Williams made famous on Vaudeville.
This movie is part of the collection: Silent Films
Director: Bert Williams
Producer: Bert Williams
Production Company: Biograph Company
Audio/Visual: silent, b&w
Keywords: silent; comedy; slapstick; black history
Creative Commons license: Public Domain
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Subject: The Poker Routine
I can see someone like Rowan Atkinson still doing the Poker Routine today.
Subject: A Natural Born Gambler
What a treasure it made my morning.
Subject: Smokey Stevens short film "know When To Hold Them a tribute to Bert Williams
I'm Ronald Smokey Stevens. My first exposure to Bert Wiliams and his genius occured as I watched Avon Long , a star at the Cotton Club of the 30's, recreate Bert's historic pantomime "poker card game" everynight while we performed the
Broadway musical BUBBLING BROWN SUGAR on Broadway.
As a result of that exposure I was encouraged to shoot my recreation of Bert's historic pantomime poker card game. I recreated Bert's card game also in my Broadway production entitled "ROLLIN' ON THE T.O.B.A", A tribute To The Last Days of Black Vaudeville, that I co-wrote-directed choreographed and starred in. The production opened off b'way at The 47th St Theater in Nyc in 1999, before moving to The Henry Miller Theater at The Kit Kat Club. While performing the show in Chicago, the director of The Community Film Workshop , saw my recreation and encouraged me to film it. It's entitled :KNOW WHEN TO HOLD THEM It's on my youtube channel at Smokey Stevens. Having said this I'm thankful for the excellant artistic legacy they left me..Ronald Smokey Stevens
Subject: Natural Born Gambler
What a talent! Since he directed, could be the FIRST black to direct & supervise a film. Wonder why he didn't continue on;he had a following from vaudeville. A rare look at a genius back in the day...still holds up grandly. The stereotypes are not taken seriously, so stop the racists remarks! Just enjoy!!
BTW, His NOBODY recording is on YOUTUBE....
Subject: Interesting piece of Entertainment History
***** stars to have this rare footage of this extraordinary groundbreaking performer, performing in a era where minstrel shows were still the way black Americans entered the entertainment industry.
** star for material he had to work with in this footage - but that was what white audiences wanted to see. He was a song and dance man and this was the silent era. Be thankful he was so popular someone decided to record him on film.
At 19:29 is where Bert Williams performs his famous pantomime poker sketch. Best part of this film. Wish they had let him do more of his own material.
In an era when racial inequality and stereotyping were an accepted part of life, he became the first black American to take a lead role on the Broadway stage, and did much to push back racial barriers during his career. Fellow vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who appeared in productions with Williams, described him as "the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew." Williams was part of the duo song & dance act of "Williams and Walker". His most famous song was "Nobody".
In 1910 he received an unprecedented offer to join Flo Ziegfeld's Follies, becoming its first featured black performer in an all-white show. Several cast members delivered an ultimatum to Ziegfeld that Williams be fired or they would leave. Ziegfeld held firm, saying, "I can replace every one of you, except [Williams]."
Williams also had an exclusive contract with Columbia Records. The wording of Columbia's promotion dropped much of the previous "coon harmony"-type sales patter and touted Williams' "inimitable art" and "direct appeal to the intelligence." Tim Brooks (who gathered information on every Columbia Records recording from 1910-1934) wrote, "Williams had become a star who transcended race, to the extent that was possible in 1910." HOPE WE FIND A RECORDING OF "NOBODY" IN THE ARCHIVE SOON.
For those researching the West Indian contribution to American culture - Mr. Williams was born in Sweetes, Antigua.